Friday, August 26, 2011

Marx and communism

Samuel Brittan, Financial Times:

Marx has suffered not only from sycophants, but from critics who identify him with the Stalin dictatorship or even the regime of Mao Zedong. It is, of course, absurd to blame Marx, who lived from 1818 to 1883, for the crimes committed decades after his death. Indeed, the great man himself once said: “Whatever else I am, I am not a Marxist.” Many serious analysts have written on what Marx meant or should have meant. I am not one of their number and my main excuse for giving my own highly selective take is that I have neither demonised nor worshipped the man.

The aspect of Marx that originally intrigued me was his division of history after the end of the Dark Ages -- feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. By socialism Marx meant something like an extreme version of the British Labour party’s former clause four, which envisaged public ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange. But communism did not have anything like its later meaning. It was a utopia in which a short working day would provide all society’s needs and people would be free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and discuss philosophy in the evening”. The vision of such a society kept in the Marxist fold some idealists who might otherwise have bolted.

The basic idea here is that industrialization lets you produce a lot. If production were oriented toward meeting people's needs rather than turning out ever-increasing amounts of disposable junk for profit, people could work relatively little while living in abundance. That's theoretical communism, as Marx envisioned it.

To his credit, Brittan gets a lot of this right. He mixes up the issue of "return on capital" with Marx's concern that the employer/employee relation is based on dependency: the employer extracts profit through an unequal power relation. For Marx, profit isn't wrong because you charge more than the cost of production; it is wrong when you appropriate for yourself (the employer) a value that has been created by others (the employees).

Anyway, see what you think.

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